Dreams about Alvaro Barrios

Categories: Writings on Álvaro Barrios

Jaime Cerón, 2011


1984. Litografía sobre papel. 45 x 62 cm.

Marcel Duchamp and his “Ready-made Happy and Unhappy” in Buenos Aires the day you’d love me. 1984. Lithograph on paper, 45 x 62 cm. Edition of 50. Printed by Arte Dos Gráfico, Bogotá

The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation,
in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience
of nature but of operational processes.
Leo Steinberg, 1972 1


The above statement—which identifies the shift in art from nature toward culture—may seem obvious today, but at the time it was made it embodied one of the most complex and radical theoretical concepts related to the analysis of art. Steinberg pointed out that this change in focus did not occur from one day to the next, nor was it the result of the efforts of an individual artist, but rather implied a shared and continuous effort by various artists in diverse schools throughout the last century. Steinberg believes, however, that the artists who emerged during the fifties and sixties, particularly in the United States, would best present the concept of the painted surface as a zone where different situations or cultural events meet. Giving attention to the works of Robert Rauschenberg from the early seventies—based on the transfer of photographic images taken from printed media—Steinberg compares the painted surface to a disorderly desk, like that of an editor’s, where the artist works using the clippings found there, putting completely heterogeneous information into relationships. Steinberg calls this type of image “postmodern,” with this being one of the first uses of this term in the field of art.


One: The (poly) graphic image
From a certain distance from the place where Steinberg made his analysis, but at the same moment in time, a young artist had begun to develop his work who would approach that same cultural experience from the other side of the problem. Álvaro Barrios began to draw as a teenager and was initially interested in images not produced by fine art, but from a broader visual culture. From his native Barranquilla, he gained a perspective on modernity that more easily reveals its fictitious nature. Neither the “great” art of the past, nor the art of the present, which together make up the hegemony of art history, can be experienced directly in Barranquilla, because there are no masters of art with a capital M in either collections or institutions, their major works appear to be interchangeable parts in a broad visual culture, to which access is gained through books and magazines.


The experience of perceiving modernity as a remote image, and of understanding history as a group of stories gave him a cultural experience that could be defined as postmodern. Authors such as Gerardo Mosquera 2 have pointed out that the co-existence of heterogeneous models in Latin America—of a historical, economic, and social nature—make the Latin American cultural experience similar to the situations defined in postmodern discourse of recent decades.


If the underlying culture in Colombia and its “reading” of hegemonic art practices have been plucked from the modern model, it is not surprising that in the sixties artists emerged whose work could not easily be accommodated into the paradigms that were used to discuss art at that time. Absent from the early works of Álvaro Barrios is a concern with purity or the formal autonomy of art, with its hypothetical universality, and, above all, with the preeminence of the treatment of the paint over the thematic proposals, as had been promoted since the end of the prior decade by Marta Traba. One of Barrios’ earliest works, made in 1962 during his last year in high school, is a watercolor included on the front cover of of his school yearbook. In the image he brought together different iconographic sources associated with the school’s ideology—Catholicism—thus making the same type of colonial identification that accompanied modernity, the age in which the process of borrowing European references was entirely legitimate.


That is why Pope John XXIII and Saint Peter’s Square appear as the backdrop to the school’s banner and coat of arms. This image is a total sum of cultural references, given that it functions as the representation of a representation. What is curious, however, is that it can be taken as a “found object,” as an image that existed in a culture before it was developed, which is a strange premonition of the work that Barrios would be interested in doing at the end of the following decade.


Beyond drawing: between comics and collage
Around the same time frame of the watercolor, he had been collecting comic strips—of characters like Dick Tracy—whose stories he cut out daily from the newspaper, mounting them one after another until he had put together a collage in the form of a roll. He then placed it inside a cardboard box with a rectangular opening that served as a screen, so that he could present the whole sequence as if it were a movie. In Barrios’ mind, the author of the comic strip was the director of the film, and the actors were his characters.


At that same time, he realized a piece that would cause his interest in comics and the universe of fiction to flow towards his future art work. It was a version of Gone with the Wind in comic strip form. He drew it in pen and colored pencils, using the memories of dialogues and images that stayed with him after he saw that movie (even though he saw it only once). He did not manage to finish the comic, due to its extensiveness, but the portions he developed would give a glimpse of  the interests he would continue to explore in similar projects and that would give form to his first art pieces. A year later he made some hand-written magazines, single issues with different sections, in which his readings of Edgar Allan Poe became cartoon strips and shared the space with a mix of beauty queens and comic strip characters imagined as part of the film world. Álvaro Barrios says that although painting can be learned, drawing cannot. The skills required for drawing come from other practices, which in Barrios case identifies with the Palmer Method of penmanship. The frequent relationship between words and images in his work may have as much to do with this experience as they do with the way he connected movies with comic strips.


The goal of these creative experiences of his teenage years, prior to his entrance into the world of art, was not to have them taken as art, because that term was completely foreign to him at that time. His first approaches to art came simultaneously with his studies of architecture, during which time he would learn the techniques, formal procedures, and genres used throughout the history of art. These would overlay the cultural references he had already explored since boyhood.


1966. Tinta china sobre papel. 85 x 56 cm.

Homenaje a Tarzán, el Hombre Mono (Homage to Tarzan of the Apes). 1966. India ink on paper. 85 x 56 cm


The drawings and collages that began to circulate in the art world mid-decade (in 1965 in Cartagena and in 1966 in Barranquilla and Bogotá) were in some ways similar to the imagery of certain surrealist pieces, such as the collages of Max Ernst. Making a comparison between these two sets of work shows a shared interest in sleight of hand as part of the oneiric world and a recurrence to a dislocation of space from image, as a consequence of the references employed in their configuration. The peculiar morphology of Barrios’ works, however, was different from that of Ernst in that it had to do more with the syntax he learned from the comic strips than with the collage principle explored by artists starting in the second decade of the twentieth century. His involvement with surrealism came from reading a book called The Artist Speaks. The book compiled a series of interviews with artists connected with that movement, but included no images, which he saw as a valuable advantage because it didn’t foreshadow an aesthetic direction of how to approach the oneiric world latent in the different texts.


One of the first voices that spoke out in support of his work was Gonzalo Arango, who had founded Nadaism several years before. Arango connected with Barrios’ work because he could see an anti-conventional determination in it that was in line with the spirit of his movement. Arango wrote a text for the catalog for Barrios’ first exhibition in Barranquilla (when he did not yet know him personally) after seeing some of his images published in the Mexican quarterly El Corno Emplumado. Shortly afterward he would make an oral presentation, which was quite controversial, during Barrios’ first showing in Bogotá on the night they finally met. Álvaro Barrios would do several drawings that would be included in publications associated with Nadaism in the following years.


Considering as a whole the works Barrios would do from the second half of the sixties, one could come to an easy conclusion that there was a direct bridge between the characteristics of his work and the pop art being explored in the United States at that same moment in time. His interest in cartoons, however, emerged from his own cultural experience, and his work—upon close examination—does not agree on the problems seen by that school—the mediatization and consumption of information—because it was produced within a cultural experience based on the translation of one culture to the premises and foundations of another. Besides, pop art was practically unknown in Colombia until the following decade.


Ugly christine and her stooges
One of the characteristic features of late modern art, particularly that of the expressionist school, was approaching the image of the body, or objective reality in general, by learning the expressions and procedures coming from the abstract movements of the twentieth century. The diverse schools with this approach from the end of the fifties to the beginning of the sixties received the shared label of Neo-figurative, and its followers were found scattered all over the world, including Francis Bacon and the famous Cobra group  3. In a group of images Álvaro Barrios realized in 1965 and 1966, we begin to see a union between, on the one hand, a series of figures characterized by the formal features of Neo-figuration, and, on the other hand, newspaper clippings which included comic strips and images from the world we denote “real.”  Equally picturesque characters were extracted from both worlds: the world of fiction and the annals of history.


Using media such as drawing, opaque watercolor, and collage, these different character types began to share the same scenarios and participate in shared situations. In these pieces his work began to explore the reconfigurations of the image of the body seen in late modern art, as if they were characters from some fictitious universe similar to that inhabited by the archetypal protagonists of the comic strips. In a similar way, he explored figures from history, both heroes and villains.



ca. 1966. Dibujo y collage sobre papel.

No te muevas Fea Cristina (Don’t move Ugly Christine). ca 1966. Collage and India ink on paper. [dimensions unknown]

During this process he would, along the way, incorporate some of the formal features used by neo-figurative artists in Colombia, such as Norman Mejía from Barranquilla, to establish a bridge for inter-communication between heterogeneous cultural experiences. No matter how lowly the figures might be in Neo-figurative painting, such as Mejía’s Horrible mujer castigadora (The Horrible Punishing Woman) 4, they became related, through the media and the aesthetic conventions used, with the great tales of humanity evoked by Art with a capital A 5. In contrast, no matter how sophisticated the characters from the comic strips might come to be, they would always be located in that strange category usually called “popular culture.” Through his formal education in art and architecture, Álvaro Barrios had begun to become familiar with the modes of representation in “high culture,” but through his instincts and experience of living in Barranquilla, he had already been submerged in the “low culture” in which the comics and urban life were the emblems. In his work as a whole, and as of that point in time, we see a constant back and forth movement along the spectrum of visual culture, reworking some references that would be considered elevated and others that could be taken as inferior.


There was one character that appeared in the Dick Tracy comic strip in 1965 called Ugly Christine, a nemesis of Tracy, who drew the attention of Barrios at that time. He always felt more motivated by the villains than by the heroes in the cartoons, both because of the contours of their characters and their aesthetic configuration. Perhaps what he found interesting in Neo-figuration was that the bodies that circulated through such paintings, alienated and identified with human drives, could be seen as hypothetical villains, as was also true of the “real” personalities that accompanied them.


The Ugly Christine character in the Dick Tracy comic came to a tragicomical end. When she attempted to escape from Tracy, the rope tying her to a helicopter came loose, and it was bad luck for her to fall into the chimney stack of a lit crematorium oven, which, of course, caused her death. In response, Barrios and Alberto Sierra (the film critic from Cartagena) published an obituary in a Cartagena newspaper, issuing an invitation to a posthumous homage at the Teatro Heredia. Around that same time, Barrios produced an exhibition with all of the works in which that character appeared. The promotional poster was a printed notice, such as those made by funeral parlors, announcing the death of Ugly Christine.


Two: Allegorical impulses

Allegory first emerged in response to a similar sense of estrangement from tradition; throughout its history it has functioned in the gap between a present
and a past which, without allegorical interpretation, might have remained foreclosed. A conviction of the remoteness of the past,
and a desire to redeem it for the present –these are its two most fundamental impulses.
Craig Owens, 1996  6


Allegory, which functioned as one of the most successful Baroque representation structures, is often described as an approach to a particularity, with the sole end of exemplifying a generality. This brings attention to both the fragment and to the use of the quotation or reference. If one image transmits us to another, it becomes allegoric, because it comes to “prescribe the direction of its own commentary.”7 One of the most emphatic propositions related to the formulation of a theory of postmodernity in the field of art was made by Craig Owens, who wrote about allegory as a strategy for significance in appropriation art. Owens was interested in analyzing a postmodern art that aspired to a resignification of images and prior practices in order to draw attention to how its critique of social conventions and institutions functioned within an allegorical structure. Unlike modern works that place references inside parenthesis in order to appear autonomous, postmodern works attempted to expand the problem implicit in the very attitude of referring to something, making it a principle of signification.



1990. Acuarela sobre papel. 35 x 52 cm.

Bodegón con espinacas y monstruo de puré (Still Life with Spinach and Mashed Potato Monster). 1990. Watercolor on paper. 35 x 52 cm


As the passage of the decade of the sixties into the seventies, the work of Álvaro Barrios multiplied its cultural references. Those references now took into account “the existence of parallel codes within the same culture,”8  and caused him to consider both the “high culture” of a hegemonic nature, and its counterpart of cultural resistance, commonly called kitsch. This latter term, broadly used in postmodern discourse (despite having been coined as a disdainful label for low culture by the cultural hegemony), was conceived as a type of burlap sack, as expressed by Gerardo Mosquera, into which different concepts fit together at the same time. “Kitsch” points in at least two directions – popular traditions and the culture of the masses – but it also incorporates all the cultural practices that gravitate between the two.


The use of the term kitsch in the field of art has provoked extensive academic debate, given that its original use was pejorative (in fact it meant “cultural garbage.”) Norbert Elias, in his famous text from 1936, The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch, noted how this term would come to allude to the cultural practices of the bourgeoisie after the Industrial Revolution, practices that functioned as a substitute for refined aristocratic culture  9. If the arguments presented by Elias are rigorously followed, it could be deduced that all modern art, which is completely tied to middle-class culture and structured on the social and cultural changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, could easily be considered kitsch. Other discourses gradually came to identify kitsch with subcultural expressions. Kitsch included traditional popular culture (including handicrafts), mass culture (for example television), and many other things between the two. Based on postmodern art concepts, the term has become emblematic of the symbolic disputes over cultural legitimacy. This has given “kitsch” the function of naming cultural practices that occur outside the representations legitimized by the hegemony.


From his childhood, Barrios was interested in comic strips and in mass culture in general, and would feel increasingly attracted by art history in the beginning with Classicism and later by the artistic practices of his own era. When he began to leave his monochromatic collages to the side and explore the spaces in boxes, his use of allegory became more tangible, not only as a technique, but also as an attitude. Although collage can be taken as an allegoric procedure, the images he developed inside boxes caused his work to become connected with surrealistic tactics, leading his work toward coded references. The visual syntax of these works, entirely singular, would allow him to mobilize situations and references that are found in parallel codes that exist simultaneously in the culture.


Serial fantasies
Toward the end of the sixties and more specifically in 1969, Barrios began to develop his images inside virtual boxes, the first of which were presented in the Salón Nacional de Artistas Colombianos (National Salon for Colombian Artists) that same year. In these pieces he leaves collage to the side and replaces it with assemblage, allowing him to combine drawing with concrete objects and materials. He would use, among other things, materials such as cotton and velvet, and would relate the drawn figures to plastic dolls taken from diverse types of toys.



1970. Caja de madera con dibujos en grafito y tinta china y caballos de plástico.

Paisaje con caballos (Landscape with Horses). 1970. Wooden box with drawings in graphite and India ink, and plastic horses. [dimensions unknown]

During his teenage years, when he was around fourteen years old, in addition to his cartoon strips, he liked to make manger scenes for Christmas. Barrios attended workshops from the time he was a boy in the Escuela de Bellas Artes in Barranquilla, and he was completely fascinated with a diorama located at the entrance to the anthropology museum at the school. The diorama was a very realistic, three-dimensional landscape that inspired him to make extremely elaborate manger scenes every year. He wanted them to function like dioramas (although at that time he didn’t know they were called dioramas) and that is why he tried to get the perspective right, locating the figures in descending order by size. He would make the sky in the form of an arch in black cardstock, which he perforated with pins, placing a light behind it to make the holes look like real stars shining in the night.


When he began to make assemblages in the form of boxes, especially for pieces with greater depth such as Paisaje Nocturno (Nocturnal Landscape), which forms a part of the collection at the Banco de la República (Colombia), he incorporated the same technique as with the mangers.  This box consists of an interrelation of objects and diverse materials where there stands a drawing, and an easel that holds a reproduction of a landscape painting by Coriolano Leudo (a Colombian artist from the beginning of the twentieth century). These boxes would come to function as stages in which he would project dreamlike images and begin to explore the other dimensions in the fields of fiction that he had been analyzing since his childhood.


Towards the mid-seventies, his interest in magic, which had emerged through characters in comic strips, became interwoven with other forms of supernatural experience and he began to explore a metaphysical dimension of reality. The idea of illusion, which was the characteristic feature of western painting prior to modernism, was thus coupled with another type of illusionism-that used in magic. This interest in occultism was reflected in his fascination with the infinite and eternity, as it occurs with the metaphysical experience of contemplating the heavens, and both the day and nighttime sky. We can also trace the recurring appearance of the image of the gnome in the iconography he used, as it forms a part of different pieces from that time, but is even included in his personal photographs, both from his childhood–when he used a gnome costume–and from his adult years – when he posed as a magician accompanied by a gnome. He was greatly attracted by the Pre-Raphaelites because their movement foreshadowed the occult slant of surrealism. He was also interested in the damned poets such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, who marked the edge of change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and was powerfully attracted by the graphicness of Aubrey Beardsley—an artist tied to Art Nouveau—to the point of recognizing that Beardsley’s lines were a source of reference for the strokes he used in his drawings done in red, black, and white at that time.


The images of that period explore a group of cultural references coming from the most diverse points in the visual culture, which made the critics at the time, as already stated, bring the term “kitsch” to the table to refer to his work. Given that many of these pieces returned to the resignification of images, materials or objects, they maintained a connection with a certain type of past that was tied to the incorporation of fantastic scenes, in such a way that it ended up producing a constant slide between nostalgia and desire. The sophistication and precision of their craftsmanship leads to a certain paradox in these pieces, because what he puts together appears impersonal, as the materials or objects he uses are appropriated.


The body according to Saint Sebastian

It is not pain that issues from his smooth chest, from his tense belly, from his slightly bent hips, but rather a flame of melancholy pleasure, such as that produced by music. If it were not for the arrows with their tips deeply sunk in his left armpit and his right side, he would appear to be a Roman athlete resting from fatigue, leaning on a dark tree in a garden.
Yukio Mishima, 1948


After reading Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima, Álvaro Barrios did a series of pieces using the iconography of St. Sebastian, where his different explorations related to fantasies identified with the male body, in particular with its nudity, would appear to come together. From his first works, he had approached the body as if it were a fictitious entity and, hand in hand with his growing interest in art history, that fiction began to become intertwined with the traditional concepts of the body projected by humanistic thinking about painting. When he appropriated Sandro Botticelli’s configuration of St. Sebastian in 1977, he began to explore a more sexualized dimension of the body, without completely abandoning the metaphysical aspects that had been his interest up to that point. The shift in his focus on the male body seen first in these works is related to the change of significance characterizing the history of the social uses of the St. Sebastian image in the arenas of art and culture. Let’s look at some of those uses in general terms.



1980. Grafito, lápiz de color y tinta china sobre papel.

El martirio de San Sebastián (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian). 1980. Graphite, colored pencil and India ink on paper. [dimensions unknown]

The legend says that Sebastian, a centurion in Emperor Diocletian’s first cohort in the Fourth century, held to his Christian convictions in disobedience to his duties as a soldier. This provoked the wrath of the Emperor, who decreed death by archers. Despite receiving innumerable arrows, he did not die, and once his wounds were healed, he came before the Roman Emperor once again to affirm his religious convictions. The sentence was pronounced once more and, after successfully fulfilling it (from the point of view of the executioner), his body was thrown in a sewer  10.


Much later, after his canonization, the first representations of Saint Sebastian began to circulate in Europe. His response to martyrdom was interpreted as providing protection against the plagues afflicting the old continent during the Middle Ages. This original iconography, which prevailed for close to eight centuries, generally presented him as a venerable elder dressed in a tunic. During the Renaissance, however, the icon would begin to change, becoming younger. At times he would be dressed in a soldier’s uniform, or more frequently, he was shown semi-naked and with a number of arrows piercing his body (usually no less than three and no more than fifteen) 11.


The Renaissance was sustained by humanist ideology, which put forth the human being, and in particular the individual, as the unit for measuring what is real. That is why making Saint Sebastian younger and naked implied a gradual secularization of the icon’s meaning, which moved toward a mixture of ecstasy and agony. Álvaro Barrios says that the movement by Renaissance artists toward Greek art was just a pretext for dealing openly with the body and exploring its erotic dimension. That is why Barrios indicates that eroticism is something that comes from inside the body and is not necessarily produced through interaction with other bodies. Saint Sebastian’s willingness to be martyred, seen as proof of his faith in the Middle Ages, was transformed, in the humanistic context, into a symbol of the enduring nature of pleasure and pain, and was progressively converted into an icon of male homosexuality by the beginning of the twentieth century.


The cultural forces that secularized Saint Sebastian’s image apparently extended a license, both to artists and to spectators, to contemplate the male body and confront the idea that its beauty is born of an experience of intense pain that would appear to be experienced as if it were pleasure. Many artists in the last century, from the most diverse media and schools, have been interested in reinterpreting its iconography, including the aforementioned author Yukio Mishima, filmmaker Derek Jarman, and the visual artist couple Pierre & Gilles.



1978. Litografía sobre papel.

El martirio de San Sebastián V (The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian V). 1978. Lithograph on paper. [dimensions unknown]

The group of works by Álvaro Barrios’ on Saint Sebastian includes a series of photographic montages done from 1978 to 1979. In them the arrows have practically disappeared and have been replaced by diverse substitutes. The body is laying horizontally, as if it had succumbed to the ecstasy. The face of the person has been covered by a cloth as if his identity were unimportant. The edges of the photographic image have unevenly faded, creating separation between the scene and the physical edge of the paper, as if it were a dream projected. His pieces around this theme starting the following decade would go back and explore all of the most symbolic features of the iconography, such as the straight lines suggested by the arrows, the vertical body fixed to a structure, and the hands tied at the wrists over the head. The connection, nevertheless, between the oneiric dimension of the fantasies and the desire would intensify in them, since new cultural references would appear on the scene.


Three: The print in an expanded field

It’s like saying, ‘Excuse me for using a technical reproduction method. But I can certify
that I have made only twelve copies and I have destroyed the matrix.’
Gerardo Mosquera, 1989


In her famous essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, Rosalind Krauss proposed that the logic determining the fields of practice where sculpture would mobilize was defined with the opposition between landscape and architecture. Although modern sculpture is neither landscape nor architecture, the experiences that have been derived from it, or have come to replace it in postmodernity, manage to displace, at least partially, these two spatial matrixes 12.



Primera serie de Grabados populares. Publicada por Diario del Caribe y El Heraldo, Barranquilla. 1972.

Tres generaciones de buen café (Three Generations of Good Coffee). 1972. First series of Popular Prints (a/p intervened with watercolor) and published by Diario del Caribe and El Heraldo, Barranquilla


At the end of her essay, Krauss mentioned that an analysis of the expansion of the postmodern space for painting would very probably turn on the opposition between uniqueness and reproducibility 13. As Krauss has indicated in other writings, modern art practice is suspended between groups of two opposing terms, such as unique/multiple, singular/reproducible, authentic/fraudulent, and original/copy. Modern discourse sublimated and exalted the first term of each pair and repressed the second, considering it negative 14. The experience of the first term in each pair, however, is an effect of the second, a point that Krauss mentioned is that the copy was basic to forming notions of what is original and spontaneous within the painting practices of the nineteenth century because the public came to develop its taste by visiting museums of copies, where we realize that we recognize the convention of spontaneity by seeing many similar images.


To clarify the above idea, a comparison can be made to coin collecting fans. Collectors usually look at a coin by holding it between their indexes and thumbs and rotating it away from them to discover if the heads and tails sides are embossed on the same axis. If they are not, the value of the coin is less, because it will be seen as unique in comparison to the millions of coins properly aligned. Something similar occurs in western art. For at least four centuries, art was interpreted as easel painting and was done according to the conventions of illusionism (which the general public calls realism). It was also organized in relation to a series of repeating genres such as the portrait, the landscape, the still life, and the nude. In addition, there were schools that modulated the way of combining the above elements and they generated yet another level of recurrence.


If we consider the terms of multiple, reproducible, fraudulent, and copy–from the mentioned opposition–the curious formula of “original edition 15” comes to mind. This concept has functioned, and continues to function today, as a way of limiting the dissemination of works whose production techniques generate serial reproduction. The concept defines some copies as legitimate (those produced within the legal conventions of the author’s rights) and others as fraudulent (those made outside of these conventions). This type of art process, in which operators or technicians are involved in making the pieces–such as prints or bronze sculptures.  Their valuation within the art market is based on the legal fiction of the “original edition.” It is a fiction to the degree that it brings together the notions of unique and multiple, which because they are opposites, can be fused only within a paradox. It functions based on the market logic of what is called the “originality-effect” caused by numbering the pieces, so we might think some of them are closer to the “creative moment” than others. The idea of destroying the matrix, as mentioned in the quote from Gerardo Mosquera, is the guarantee that this conventional fiction will have some hypothetical coherence, as least with respect to the market.


Postmodern art theories demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the notion of originality could exist only as an imaginary assumption, given that, as mentioned above, art in practice is conceived and built on repetition and recurrence. That is why, after modernism, many artists tossed to the wind all repression related to notions of multiple, reproducible, fraudulent, and copy. By exploring those notions, they realized that, shockingly, they constituted the nucleus on which the concept of originality is configured. Consensual validation of the original caused these other features inherent to artistic work to be repressed. Returning to Krauss and her comment that the postmodern space for painting could be logically expanded based on the opposition between unique/reproducible, it is interesting to note that the “simple arts,” where no operators or technical processes are involved, are also being maintained using conventions similar to that of the “original edition.”



Diario del Caribe, Barranquilla, 3 de octubre de 1974.

Popular Print. Diario del Caribe, Barranquilla, October 3, 1974


Starting in the sixties, Álvaro Barrios began to experience the weirdness of seeing his images reproduced in the mass media, initially as illustrations in magazines, and later as publicity announcements in the mass media. He also explored the dimension of the multiple in graphic artwork and in object-based works. It would be his works associated with the idea of insertion, however, such as his Grabados Populares (Popular Prints), that would more sharply modulate the move toward limitless reproducibility, and that would expose and dismantle the fiction of the “originality-effect” habitually applied in these cases.


Returning to the serial dimension present in the realization of multiple objects (mentioned in the previous paragraph), it must be pointed out that this dimension has been a recurrent practice through all of his work, and in which he is still currently involved. It began with some wooden boxes that reproduced in relief an appropriation of the twentieth century painting The Gleaners, by Jean François Millet. This box was developed as a diorama, in which the figures, silhouettes cut from paper, were seen closer than the landscape that served as their backdrop. This in turn was projected inside another set that was an enigmatic starry sky added by Barrios, in which the silhouettes appeared to gather pearls.


Barrios has continued to engage from time to time in projects of this type to this day, such as when he produced a series of lamps on Duchamp’s Fountain and Dick Tracy in 2007, or when he brought together Tonsure and Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp in Oración en el museo (Prayer in the Museum) inside a box in 2008. In 2011, he produced the Copa Marcel Duchamp (Marcel Duchamp Cup), which is a retake on Fountain and other appropriations made by other artists.


Circulation strategies beyond the exhibition
In 1966 Álvaro Barrios won second price in the competitive painting contest Homenaje a Dante (Homage to Dante), which allowed him to travel to Italy to study art history. His stay in that country produced his first encounters with pieces that crossed the frontiers of what was considered modern in art, to the point of creating problems with innumerable aspects that up until then appeared to have been settled. Upon his return to Colombia, he participated in the Espacios Ambientales (Environmental Spaces) exhibition held in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá, located on the campus of Universidad Nacional, which would be remembered as the country’s first competition for conceptual art. His work, Pasatiempo con luz intermitente (Pastime with Intermittent Light), was a setting that had a large sphere covered with vignettes of comic strips along with some metal chairs with red light bulbs on their backs that lit intermittently. While Barrios, in his teenage years, had made comic strips from the movies, in this case he seemed to be doing just the opposite.


On the morning following the inaugural event, two students from Universidad Nacional, one medical student, Iván Ramírez, and another law student, Pedro Berbesí, forced their way into the museum and destroyed some of the works. Those works included that of Barrios and that of mason Víctor Celso Muñoz (who was in and of himself “a conceptual appropriation” within the exhibition project). Near the door they wrote the slogan “Art for the people and not for the bourgeoisie” and they left printed cards that said, “Art is grieving over this garbage.” The news of the vandalism was covered by four newspapers, El Siglo, El Vespertino, El Tiempo and El Espectador, with enormous dissemination for the standards at the time, which ended up mythifying the show. With hindsight provided by time, however, it would appear as if the act of vandalism was conceived as a conceptual circulation strategy for the exhibition’s ideals, because the slogans left in the museum were very close to the attitude that would fuel the famous May 1968 protests.


Many analysts of contemporary art, both theorists and historians, have indicated that that time of student turmoil would function as a threshold separating modern art from postmodern art. The turmoil would serve to raise awareness (to use the terms of that age) with respect to the need to be freed, in all fields, from the weight of the conventions and institutions of modernity. Returning to the mentioned vandalism, nevertheless, we can see that it encloses a paradox. The paradox is that the type of practices the students were rejecting was more critical of the bourgeoisie than the models whose validity they would appear to be defending with their slogans. In addition, we must not forget that the political convictions of Marta Traba were probably closer to those of the students than they themselves might have believed.


In 1971 Barrios was one of the artists who participated in the Arte de sistemas (Art Systems) exhibition, organized by Jorge Glusberg from the Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires. It was a very peculiar show because the artists were invited to participate in the exhibition through a formal letter that mentioned it was a parallel show to the biennial in São Paulo, but independent, and held in Buenos Aires. It was focused on reviewing the conceptual art practices of that time, with key artists from all over the world involved in that current stream, such as Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Christo Javacheff, Christian Boltanski, Gilbert & George, On Kawara, and Richard Serra having participated in the event. Among the Latin Americans were Víctor Grippo and Luis Benedit, and Colombians Jonier Marín, Raúl Marroquín, and Bernardo Salcedo. Barrios was involved in other similar projects by that same art center in cities such as Barcelona and London in the following years. The books published about those projects served as circulation formats in and of themselves, and provided a proper context for understanding the project of each participating artist. That is why Barrios mentions the works he did for those projects in his Grabados populares (Popular prints) 16 which we will look at further on.


That same year, Barrios realized the piece Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea), presented at the Paris Biennale and articulated the logic for diffusion of the serial image based on a strategy of inserting it into the architectural space and presenting it as its complement. It was an installation, or an environmental space as Barrios said at that time, which is an artistic genre that literally defies the boundaries of the art object in order to identify with the architectural features of the space, or to question them through different formal expressions and strategies. The piece consisted of suspending sheets of paper with clothespins on taut ropes near the ceiling. At least sixty sheets were needed, located above the spectator’s head. Each one of them had a sky-blue square silk-screened on each side that in principle was related to the way oceans are represented on maps as blue-colored areas. The work had to be located in a transit area within the exhibition site, so that spectators could see it in both directions. This type of configuration, printed sheets held by pins on lines, has been used in recent years by many artists, who define it as “periodico de cordel” (hung newspaper), which not only demonstrates how contemporary and current the strategy was, but allows us to see how it is related to the function of his Popular Prints.




“El Mar Caribe” (The Caribbean Sea). 1977.


Both the image of the blue square and the situation it produced had, among their origins, a reading of The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll, and in particular the description of the map that guided that hunt.


Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes! But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank: (So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best – A perfect and absolute blank!” 17


The idea of a map without land was understandable to these sailors, who, in addition, thought that the location references–such as the Equator or the North Pole–were nothing more than conventions. To clarify this idea, the book had an illustration by Henry Holiday (a Pre-Raphaelite painter), who designed a true conceptual map: a white square on a white background, like that done by the famous Russian avant-garde painter Kasimir Malevich just over 40 years later. The absence of hierarchy on Holiday’s map described the very logic of the argument and the construction of Carroll’s work, which had as its final phrase the same phrase used at the beginning, indicating its circular structure. The mentioned map appears to be related to the response given by Barrios about how he defined himself: “Álvaro Barrios can be understood to be the part left blank at the end of a letter.” 18


An additional source for this work was The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, by Marcel Duchamp, better known as The Large Glass. Barrios focused his attention on the “draught pistons” that are part of the universe of the bride (in the upper part of the glass), which were made by photographing a square of gauze three times that was gently rippling in front of an open window. 19 This reference makes us think of the breeze as another force working to break down the hierarchy of the peculiar projection made by Barrios of the sea.


The idea underlying this project was to present the image of the Caribbean Sea as an impossible topology.  Written on the side of each sheet of paper on the border of the blue printing, were geographic coordinates. If the coordinates of the two sides were compared, however, one could see that the two were incompatible with each other. That is why it was necessary to be able to encounter the work from the two different directions while walking through the area. When he redid this work for the (Poly)graphic San Juan Triennial in 2004, he decided to put the coordinates of the sea separating Puerto Rico from the United States on one side and on the other side those that join it with the rest of Latin America. As José Roca says with respect to the island: “the sea becomes a sign of both its independent insularity and its historical relationship with the continent.” 20


Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea) is perhaps Barrios’ project that would come to work in the most complex and sophisticated ways within the fundamentals of conceptual art that had so interested him since the end of the sixties.


In 1980 he created a flyer on the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian complete with horizontal lines where spectators or bystanders could write about a real martyr or an invented one. Barrios thought that every person persecuted for his ideas is a type of contemporary martyr. Those who felt motivated to participate in the project, describing their “martyrs,” could use wooden clothespins to hang their flyers on lines in a public park in Barranquilla. The configuration was similar to that of Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea). For Barrios, the work was a comment on the security regulations of Julio César Turbay’s administration, for which the artist Feliza Bursztyn, who participated in the mythical exhibition “Espacios Ambientales (Environmental Spaces),” was imprisoned and tortured in the Escuela de Caballería del Cantón Norte (Bogotá). This work was later exhibited in Cali in the Museo de Arte Moderno La Tertulia, and in Pereira in a show called “Un arte para los años ochenta (An art for the eighties).”


Newsprint images
The successful use of prints in the fifteenth century was entirely dependent on the cultural revolution that marked the invention of movable type printing, which happened in that same century. The edition number produced by both were in response to an interest in circulating images and information using forms and channels “the originals” could not reach. That is why prints incorporated a group of material traces, a product of their reproducibility, and made possible a type of dissemination apparently unlimited. Based on romanticism, however, as previously mentioned, the print entered the scene under the fiction of “original edition,” imposing a conventional limit on its dissemination that, technically speaking, could be infinite.


In 1972 the newspaper El Caribe asked Barrios, through a publicity agency, to design a series of advertisements for the company Cafetería Almendra Tropical. He did the images in pencil, as he normally did his drawings, but the technical tests demonstrated that he needed to use a new technique because the drawings did not have sufficient contrast for printing. This meant he needed to make modifications in his lines and it seemed the drawings were not going to be recognizable as his pieces. To his surprise, however, once they were printed in the newspaper, he noted that, despite everything, they looked like his normal drawings. The technical process of producing a printing plate, whose features were different from the prints, made Barrios reflect on the parallels between newspaper printing and traditional printing. He therefore issued a press release announcing that these three advertisements were Popular prints and that he would sign them for free. Calling this type of practice a print generated a series of meditations that, in the end, confirmed for him that this could be the more meaningful term for this type of work, based on the interpretive load the works carry. By using this name he provoked reflection on the undeniable expansion of the conventional categories used to talk about art. Not even the word “art” itself has escaped from such expansion, when its current uses can be even antagonistic to its original etymology. The term “popular” is interesting because it alludes to both the technical production and reproductive system, but also to its cultural appropriation outside of the “elitist art” system.


With his declaration as to the artistic nature of his three advertisements, he managed to insert a print run of 28,000 newspapers into the art world. As a consequence to this exercise of “self-appropriation,” he began to identify a working platform that could place art work in circulation without having to exhibit it in the context of a show. In 1974, he produced his first Popular print that was conceived as such, now with a clear understanding that it could function in the same way traditional prints functioned in the beginning, to explore a mobility and a dissemination capacity not permitted for unique pieces. He was also conscious of the way this practice involved insertion into cultural contexts that were not seen as conventional containers or legitimate institutions for hosting works of art. Because they are printed on newsprint, a paper that degrades quickly and easily, we become aware of the possibility that prints themselves might be thought of as ephemeral pieces with impermanent value, like the news they accompany. This, then, is yet another challenge to the assumption of stable value for works of art in the institutional environment.


Starting at this time he began to use this strategy even in the context of exhibitions, which occurred with his participation in the traveling projects of the Buenos Aires Centro de Arte y Comunicación from 1974 to 1976. The announcement describing Barrios’ work could be mailed in and authenticated by his signature as being part of an “original edition” or an “anti-original edition”—as would ironically occur with all of his Popular Prints. This strategy was also considered to be his particular mode of communication. These works initially appeared in newspapers in Barranquilla, but later started to show up in the newspapers of other cities in Colombia, and subsequently in places such as Buenos Aires, Mexico, and Caracas. In many of these cases, the volume of mail with prints seeking his signature became increasingly more significant. There was even a curious contribution of a more conceptual nature that occurred when a person decided to photocopy the print published in the paper, adding an additional layer of dissemination. When the photocopies were sent and received the signature, it was confirmed as a tactic that was fully integrated with the operating principle of the Popular Prints. There were also cases in which the signature was included on a peel-off label and others in which it was printed in advance, as part of the image, and as part of a regulated system in the art world, the way each serialized image is legitimized via a signature-the conventional mark of validation.


Over time other media was implemented with this project, such as flyers, either loose or incorporated as part of publications. He was also interested in recovering pages with printing mistakes from the newspaper’s press runs, because they were an ironic take on an artist’s proof with respect to the “creative process”; in these cases produced by a simple mechanical error.


Upon examining the group of Popular Prints that he has made so far, we can see that they are not about a certain theme within his work, but rather, serve as a platform for circulation that has allowed him to explore his most diverse interests throughout the last three decades. Thus, in 1978, on the decade anniversary of the death of Marcel Duchamp, Barrios published a profile photo of Duchamp accompanied by horizontal lines for readers to write their real or invented dreams. This gave origin to his project Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams About Marcel Duchamp).


Four: Comic book art
Unlike many artists who build the parameters of their taste by identifying themselves with other artists working in the same time period, Barrios has stated, “if someone says he is only interested in pop or conceptual and is not interested in the Renaissance, I doubt his sensibility.”21 His work has circulated the most heterogeneous references to art and literature and the most diverse school and genres. In his work, however, art history is treated like fiction, comparable to his other great source, the comic strips, given that its transcendence is introduced using humor, which frequently projects irony or subtle criticism on the sources to which it references.



2009. Acuarela sobre papel. 27 x 48 cm.

Buscando un Rembrandt (Looking for a Rembrandt). 2009. Watercolor on paper. 27 x 48 cm


The postmodern art experience consisted in understanding that, just as a book could contain an entire library, a work of art could be equivalent to a museum (or to the history of art). 22 In the work of Barrios an image contains many other images that come from different arenas, and that are capable, in turn, of projecting connections with other groups of images.


Art within art
In 1981 Álvaro Barrios created a false retrospective, which was first shown in the cultural hall of Avianca in Barranquilla, and was later presented in the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá in 1986. On this second occasion he copied different works of his produced throughout his career, at times mixing the eras as if using a time machine. He did this with the purpose of developing a critical look at his own work in juxtaposition to the trend on the part of some Colombian artists (of that time) who were attempting to “retread” their early works to take advantage of more recent legitimacy and new expectations generated by their respective works. This new look to their early works meant the origin of those works was now only so in a figurative sense. Crucial to developing his interpretive operation was Barrios’ reading of the novel by Marcel Proust In search of Lost Time, which allowed him, to a certain extent, to think it was possible to travel into the past to involuntarily re-experience, through a fragment of experience, a partial or fragmentary feature of an event once lived. Barrios understood that this inevitability could come from the present itself, experienced as past.


In the nineties, he created a similar gesture when he began to draw upon a formal strategy that consisted of including a frame inside the image. The frame produced the feeling in the work’s spectator, that the work was nothing other than a frame within a frame. It is normally thought that the art in a framed painting is the painting, and that the frame is simply a decorative complement that passively encases it. But if we carefully analyze the religious art of the preceding centuries, we see that frames are really the church altars, which are an integral part of the architecture itself. In this sense, the painting is fit into the frame rather than the reverse. When we look at the paintings of the historical avant-garde at the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth, we may be surprised by the frames surrounding them. Whether they are works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Kandinsky or Duchamp himself, it is surprising to find that the canvases are edged with heavy and decorative frames that do not appear in photographs printed in books (at least not the books published before postmodernism).  Yet those frames have been tied to the experience of the works for decades. The molding for those frames was produced in series, as is for all frames, and therefore the same frame molding must have served for mirrors, posters, and amateur paintings, among many other things. Nevertheless, while the majority of those frames were not chosen by the artists, they have ended up being effectively integrated into the experience of the works, to the point of being indiscernible from them. For that reason, they could be thought to have a certain “collaborative dimension” to the work, similar to the conceptual propositions carried out by the creators of “relational aesthetics.” When a person stands in front of a Van Gogh inside a Baroque frame, he or she encounters, at the least, two social and cultural references. In this case, the spheres of art are thus juxtaposed: the painted canvas carrying “unique” symbolic images, and the handicraft consisting of pieces of carved wood and configured using traditional patterns (in technical and aesthetic terms).



1999. Dibujo y collage sobre litografía.

Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas). 1999. Drawing and collage on lithograph. [dimensions unknown]

From the point of view of postmodernism, the frame is so important–as an emblem of the rhetoric of the institutional limit of art–that some of its leading analysts have argued that it comes to represent artistic meaning par excellence. They even go so far as to make an analogy between the frame and the institution of art, for which reason it can be said that there is a postmodernism “inside” and another “outside” of the frame.


By including the evidence of a double frame, Barrios made one think about the way his images not only referred to the world, but also about the way they were “representing representation.”23 From this body of work, quotes from and references to other works of art began to multiply that would gradually come to be seen as part of peculiar situations that would overflow their initial scope. In her work The Two Fridas, Frida Kahlo questions her mirror image as a reflection of her identity. Her alter ego answers with a text, that can only be read from right to left (like the texts of Leonardo da Vinci), which brings to mind the link between her two imaginary existences—like a lucky tautology. In reality, a third frame appears within the image in this piece. It serves as a parameter for identifying the self-portrait, the mirror image, and the painted work that the spectator in fact perceives in reality. The idea of the frame within a frame was suggested to Barrios by the structure of the dream narrated in One Hundred Years of Solitude:


When he was alone, Jose Arcadio Buendia consoled himself with dreams of the infinite rooms. He dreamed that he was getting out of bed, opening the door and going into an identical room with the same bed with a wrought-iron head, the same wicker chair, and the same small picture of the Virgin of Help on the back wall. From that room he would go into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another that was just the same, the door of which would open into another one just the same, and then into another exactly alike, and so on to infinity. He liked to go from room to room, as in a gallery of parallel mirrors, until Prudencio Aguilar would touch him on the shoulder. Then he would go back from room to room, walking in reverse, going back over his trail, and he would find Prudencio Aguilar in the room of reality. 24


Finally Prudencio Aguilar touches him on the shoulder in an intermediate room, leaving him—José Arcadio Buendía—to forever think that he is in the real room, which meant he had died. Also important in the formation of the possibility of a “mise en abyme” was the book Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.


In his works from prior decades, he had included references to artists of the nineteenth century, such as the photographer Willem von Gloeden, Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, and the realist Jean François Millet.  However, in the nineties, he began to make allusions not only to works of art, but to the anecdotes and situations surrounding the circulation and reception of works from the historical avant-garde and neo-avant-garde. He considered some of the aphorisms produced by modern artists to be as significant as their more emblematic works. For a project he presented for the first year of the Luis Caballero Prize (in 1997), called Ars longa vita brevis (Art is eternal, life is brief), he resorted to a tangle of crossed references. The title, for example, is a quote from Hippocrates. To make that quote plausible, Barrios developed the story—in this case literal— of the survival of their works beyond the life of artists, displaying six works of deceased artists: Luis Caballero, Francisco de Goya, Jean Tinguely, Andy Warhol, Carlos Rojas, and Salvador Dalí. Across from these works, he placed the phrase that gave the name to the project, carved on blocks of coal and surrounded by two flames carved from white marble. At the two ends of the central composition he located a series of canvasses on which he reproduced a text in Latin on a red background. It occupied the entire concave wall of the Galería Santa Fe (55 meters long). The text in Latin showcased the words to the song “O Caritas” by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam), which played constantly as an audio as part of the work. Its final verse says, “This world will never last, I don’t want to lose it here in my time, give me time forever here in my time”.


Duchamp in the head
During the sixties, while he was still studying architecture, Barrios read a series of quotations by Marcel Duchamp—whose original source was an interview—in a book without images. He forgot the title, despite the fact that the book completely broke down what he had understood about the concepts of art up until that point. Such was its impact that only after a decade, could he make his first explicit approaches to the work of Duchamp.


It was in 1978 with a Popular print that gave rise to his project Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about Marcel Duchamp), that the influence of the French artist began to be overtly manifested in his work. As previously stated relative to this piece, the initial idea was to involve the public by having them write their dreams in regards to the character. The signature was printed on the blank dreams as a way of mocking the cultural convention of authorship. It then became either a validation of this image—as part of his Popular prints—or an appropriation of a hypothetical dream that someone might come to write, either real or imagined. The response by the public, however, was not very stimulating, and Barrios ended up writing his own 100 texts that made up the complete project. The exhibition as a whole was initially presented at the Galería Garcés Velásquez and later at the Museo La Tertulia in Cali.




1980-2010. Serigrafía sobre papel. Edición de 100 hojas manuscritas con 40 textos distintos.

Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about     Marcel Duchamp). 1980-2010. Silkscreen on paper. Edition of 100 handwritten paper sheets, with 40 different texts. Printed by Arte Dos Gráfico, Bogotá


In 2002 the band Aterciopelados launched their independent record label Entrecasa. Their idea was not to hold a “gig,” which usually occurs to launch recording projects, but to organize a visual arts exhibition. So Aterciopelados gathered different artists for a show at Galería Santa Fe. In that group was Álvaro Barrios, who presented a series of ten acetate discs with labels that read Sueños que cualquiera puede cantar (Dreams anyone can sing). The work’s cultural reference was Hans Richter’s film project from 1946, Dreams that Money Can Buy.


In 1980, at Galería Garcés Velásquez, Barrios organized an exhibition entirely dedicated to Duchamp. It included a series of specific revisions of some of his most emblematic works. The show used practically all of the techniques he had learned, to the point that the public believed it was a group exhibition. He included watercolors, pen and ink drawings, letters, objects, shadows, photographs, flyers, and installations. That was where he presented the piece Álvaro Barrios como Marcel Duchamp como Rrose Sélavy como L.H.O.O.Q. (Álvaro Barrios as Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy as L.H.O.O.Q.).


The piece refers to the portrait of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy from 1921. In it, Duchamp wears make-up and is adorned with a hat and coat, but his arms and hands are replaced with those of a woman, using an artificial touch-up to accentuate his femininity. 25 The work utilizes the belief in the documentary power of the photograph to construct the fiction that we are observing a real woman, and not a man in costume. At the same time, it alludes to the project Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q., which consisted of drawing a moustache and beard on a low-quality lithographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa. For this appropriation, Duchamp added a new title on the lower part of the page. Pronouncing the letters in French forms the sentence “Elle a chaud au cul,” which literally means “She has a hot ass,” an expression used to refer to a woman who is sexually excited. 26 This phrase can be interpreted in the first instance as a comment on the person appearing in the work by Leonardo; if read in English, however, the title reads as look, giving new meaning to the phrase in French. Upon observing and reading this work, we can perceive two types of latent sexual identities, because, as Duchamp said, “The most curious thing about that moustache and goatee (…) is that when you look at it, the Mona Lisa becomes a man. It is not a woman disguised as a man, it is a real man”. 27 For that reason the “she” in the homophone of the title in French perhaps does not allude to the person represented, but to the subject that “looks.” In this case the person looking would be a woman, whose “heat” would be produced by the desire she experiences looking at a masculine object, the man who the Mona Lisa now is.



1980. Fotografía iluminada a mano.

Álvaro Barrios as Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy as L.H.O.O.Q. 1980. Hand-painted photograph [dimensions unknown]

By using these two references, Barrios plays with the movement of sexual identity in a completely circular way, going from man to woman, and in turn, once again to a man, given that he has his moustache. With time this work would give rise to a Popular print that was also presented as an unlimited edition. He borrowed from Duchamp the idea of a “reciprocal readymade,” which implies establishing equivalent appropriations from at least two universes of meaning. This type of creative exercise therefore implied triangulated logic. In that same era he explored two new ways of playing with identity when he appropriated Duchamp’s Tonsure in the form of a star (in reality this Duchampian act alluded to a comet), or when he made a “compensation portrait.” In this case he used a friend’s photo to replace his own image in a catalog at the Centro de Arte Actual in Pereira for the exhibition “Raros, preciosos y bellos” (Rare, Precious, and Beautiful). The idea of a compensation portrait was suggested by Duchamp, as well as by all the artists participating in the exhibition “First Papers of Surrealism”, held in New York in 1942, who chose portraits of other people to represent themselves in the catalog. When Duchamp participated in this initiative, he chose the image of an older and haggard woman that had been taken by Ben Shahn during the Great Depression and that, according to some of his friends, evoked his features, but a bit more run-down. 28 This almost senile version of Rrose Sélavy by Duchamp motivated Barrios to identify an alter ego almost as radical in ethnicity, age, and gender, like the old and haggard woman used by Duchamp.


From 1983 to 1984 he did a series of watercolors where he appropriated works by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal) to establish the setting for some of the situations that had emerged in the texts that formed a part of Sueños con Marcel Duchamp (Dreams about Marcel Duchamp). References thus appeared in his works in the midst of situations that were surreal or lacked common sense, taking place in the canals of Venice. At that same time he did an appropriation of The Large Glass on a small scale, and presented it with the text of a dream written on the wall in its shadow. He saw this shadow of the glass as a work in and of itself, and it was identified as such. Some years later he did another pair of transparent works, in Plexiglas instead of glass, that took into account not only Duchamp’s Glass but also his Gradiva. The latter was the threshold for access into the André Breton Gallery, and was made by cutting a silhouette of an embracing couple from thick crystal. Returning to the works done by Barrios based on these references, it must be mentioned that he destroyed the first glass version. The next version, which he called Gran Plexi (The Large Plexi), he made with a series of letters that came from communication he carried on for a long time with a friend who suffered from schizophrenia, before the friend was diagnosed with that illness. The correspondence was interrupted when his friend had to travel to Canada for treatment. This work was one of the pieces he presented in his retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá in 1986.



1983. Impresiones digitales sobre papel de conservación. 140 x 93 cm. c/u.

Oración en el museo (Prayer in the Museum). 1983. Giclée print on archival paper. 140 x 93 cm


He also made a triangulated approach to other works of Duchamp when he produced a bottle of perfume with the name Con mensaje escondido (With hidden message). First, he was referring to Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, which appears to mean “Violet Water, Beautiful Helen” until we notice that some letters are inverted and the text really says “Beautiful Breath: Veil Water.” Secondly, it incorporates an aspect of Duchamp’s work With Hidden Noise, which consisted of a ball of twine inserted between two copper plates held together with screws and nuts, in which the noise of an object could be heard, but whose identity could not be clearly defined.  Not even Duchamp knew what was inside, because he asked his friend Walter Arensberg to choose an object and put it inside the ball of twine and seal it between the plates without telling him what it was. Barrios emulated this idea when he deposited a message inside the bottle of perfume, another reciprocal readymade, which in this case seeks to evoke bottles thrown into the sea with messages inside them. Its label says Con mensaje escondido, para leer en un lejano futuro (With a hidden message, to read in a distant future). Nevertheless, the bottle is not sealed. The idea of the distant future is a time when the message can be understood, given that it is a message for art to be “not manifested.” According to this idea, there are innumerable situations in the world that are not thought of as art, because they are involuntarily produced or because they are events that are “naturally” produced in reality. But when a person perceives certain disturbing or evocative situations, he or she is participating in an experience similar to that provoked by art. That is why, if someone opens the bottle, reads the message, and does not understand it, he should put it back in the bottle until a person finally arrives who can understand what it says.


Some years earlier Barrios had undertaken his own version of the work Apolinere Enameled, a work by Duchamp that was the result of repainting an advertisement for Sapolin Enamel. For the sign, Duchamp added small retouches to the image of a girl painting a bed, and modified some of the letters in the ad, which went from “Sapolin Enamel” to “Apolinere Enameled” or “the enameled era of Apollinaire.” For his version of this piece, Barrios used a small bronze sculpture he found in a flea market of the character Pintuco, known from commercials and ads for Pintuco, a Colombian brand of paint. This character, known popularly as “the man with the overalls and brush,” was accompanied in the piece by another small statue, a reproduction of a Greek statue from the third century A.D. called “Spinario,” a young man pulling a thorn out of the sole of his foot. This man in overalls, in a typical continuous gesture of painting and painting, begins to get red paint on the white character, provoking the imaginary projection that in the future he will have finished his work. This image can invoke different associations, including a literalization of the romantic theme: the artist “painting” his model, with everything that implies. He had already done a work in the seventies that explored the idea of the artist and his “muse” with a similar orientation.


A couple of years later, when he did his false retrospective, he included direct quotes from other works of Duchamp when he reworked some of his own earlier works. The bicycle wheel appears floating in the air over a person pulled out of a painting by Gustave Doré–a version of the theme of building the Tower of Babel—as well as from other works that he presents as forming a part of earlier moments in his career. That same picture by Doré was recreated by Barrios in watercolor, and in it he camouflaged five works by Duchamp: Bicycle Wheel, Fountain, Gradiva, In Advance of the Broken Arm, and Tonsure, which appear fully integrated with the original iconography.



2009. Tinta china y acuarela sobre papel.

The Werewolf in Metropolis. 2009. India ink and watercolor on paper. [Dimensions unknown]

This strategy of inserting the works of Duchamp into unusual contexts would become more complex in the following years, when the scene taken as the starting point would be a practice of popular culture. Basing his work on the narrative conventions of comic strips, the strangeness of Duchamp’s readymades would be intensified in contexts as peculiar as the adventures of Tin Tin, Red Ryder, Superman, and Dick Tracy. He would even mix together the adventures of different comic strips. For example, in one, Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent’s friend, is transformed into a werewolf, the consequence of possessing Duchamp’s Fountain. In this sense, he appears to be proving the analysts right who state that Duchamp, by leaving the Fountain without its function as a urinal, 29 was trying to awaken the other dimension fulfilled by the part of the body for which this object was made: sexuality.


The Twentieth Century News Program, artistic feats
In 2005 Álvaro Barrios began his series El noticiero del siglo XX (The News Program of the Twentieth Century), a group of paintings and graphic works that had the function of reviewing the history of modern art and, in particular, of paying attention to certain types of provocative actions or expressions that might effectively narrate avant-garde and neo-avant-garde points of view. The first pieces in this series assume the existence of a television channel that belongs to the newspaper the Daily Planet in Metropolis, the city where Superman lives. Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent and a green alien from the planet Krypton report on the most radical feats achieved by the artists of the twentieth century, who have managed to complicate the category of art and constantly expand its conventional limits.


It is known that the city of Metropolis in the mentioned comic strip represents the city of New York, a city that, starting from the mid-twentieth century, became the privileged locale for sheltering avant-garde artists and functioning as a virtual center for modern western art. The fact that it is those fictitious characters who narrate the events to the spectators of these paintings, and that they do so from an imaginary city becomes an irony, bringing to mind the eccentric place Latin America’s social and cultural context is within the hegemonic and colonial order in modern art.



2006. Acrílico sobre lienzo. 51 cm. de diámetro c/u.

From the series El noticiero del siglo XX (The News Program of the Twentieth Century).
2006. 51 cm in diameter


This first group of paintings were characterized by circular formats. The exploits described mainly came from the most critical practices of the sixties, except for some radical cases from the first decades of the twentieth century. Two works of Duchamp were mentioned, the Fountain and Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q., in addition to a work by Arthur Cravan, another by Max Ernst, and another by Picabia. Among the other pieces mentioned are works by the European artists Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Jannis Kounellis and Joseph Beuys and the North Americans Robert Rauschenberg and Chris Burden, all of them from the fifties and sixties. It also included a more recent project: Surrounded Islands, done by Christo Javacheff and Jeanne Claude Denat in the eighties.


All of the works referenced in El noticiero del siglo XX (The News Program of the Twentieth Century) have a common defiance for the object status of art, such as the idea of displaying and commercializing the vacuum (Klein) or erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning (Rauschenberg). More radical are the expressions by Burden and Manzoni, which are based on a transgression of the limits of the corporeal nature, evidenced when Burden shot himself in the arm (as an expression that cannot be commercialized) or when Manzoni, similarly, proposes commercializing a multiple, a series of numbered cans, as if they were an “original edition,” hypothetically containing his excrement.


True lies, art as the fiction of fiction
An important segment of Barrios’ recent art projects humorously review some of the best remembered works of late modern, that are symbolic of the art at the end of the twentieth century, and situates them in different coordinates for interpretation, within the particular cultural framework of our context. In these works, painting, the modern art media par excellence, is connected with conceptualism and appropiationism. These schools of art generated the strategies for dismantling the theoretical foundations of modern art. They opened a historical crack initially known as postmodernity that now goes by different names.


In many of these images the art is embedded in sophisticated and exclusive social surroundings, in which the elegant opulence of the environments and people appear as an ironic reading on the certain “social uses” of collecting.



2006. Acrílico sobre lienzo. 160 x 170 cm.

Frida pintando sobre un Pollock (Frida Painting over a Pollock). 2006. Acrilic on canvas. 160 x 170 cm

The veracity of the situations described in the images, however, is challenged by the interference of characters that are unexpected in the context. Such is the case when Frida Khalo appears in such an environment, painting on a whim, a copy of a work by the popular Colombian painter Noé León on top of a large canvas by Pollock.


The ideas in the Noticiero del siglo XX (The News Program of the Twentieth Century) have continued in this group of recent works, but in different fictitious scenarios, for example, that of Dick Tracy, but the purpose is not to cover a news event about the feats represented by a portion of great art practices, but rather to report the sensationalist news from the world of art–such as the death of Ana Mendieta—or to review the political events that have developed in its surroundings—such as the inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in the mural done by Diego Rivera inside the Rockefeller Center.


This entire group of works functions as a pretext for incorporating the critique of art into the works, or to interchange the role of artist with that of curator, theorist, or even fiction writer. For this reason, the historical events of modern art that are “cited” in his works did not always occur as he describes them, because he describes them as he would have liked them to have happened. The institutions involved with art circulation—such as museums and galleries—and the processes of cultural appropriation that they generate—such as collecting and the glamour it appears to have—are matters that, in the end, are not comprehensible to Barrios, and that is why he returns to them with frequency and irony.


In his most recent series, completed in 2010 and titled Aunque usted no lo crea: artistas mediocres que se volvieron extraordinarios (Believe it or Not: Mediocre Artists who Became Extraordinary) mixes true facts—such as the fact that Nam June Paik built robots at the beginning of his career that played recordings of the speeches of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy—with fictitious situations— such as that this same artist was left blind by lightning and when he regained his sight, he gained such lucidity that it allowed him to produce “masterpieces” from that moment on.



2010. Acrílico sobre lienzo, 100 x 140 cm.

¡Aunque Ud. no lo crea! ¡Artistas mediocres que se volvieron extraordinarios! (Nam June Paik) (Believe It or Not! Second-Rate Artists Who Became Extraordinary! [Nam June Paik]). 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 100 x 140 cm

This method of “fictionizing” reality appears to recapture, in a certain sense, the fundamentals of his “pre-artistic” period, such as when he rewrote the script for the movie “Gone with the Wind” as a comic strip after having seen the movie just once, which he did by incorporating a series of imaginary projections and inaccuracies in that reconstruction. In his recent works this vocation for fiction is less intuitive and more deliberate, because it has a close tie to his interest in moving creative work closer to a critical function. This is why he uses Damien Hirst’s diamond skull as an oracle that foretells either the indispensable artists or the “perfectly forgettable” ones, according to different frames of reference and occasionally with different results.


Throughout his almost five decades of work, he has incorporated different iconographic sources, diverse working methods and media, but he has constantly maintained his use of humor, which is the vehicle that conceptually activates his objects and images, and which leads the spectator to actively participate in his imaginary projections and to generate his or her own fantasies and fictions.




1    Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria. Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, London: Oxford University Press, 1972, Page 84.
2    Gerardo Mosquera, Los hijos de Guillermo Tello, Bogotá: Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, 1991, Page 10.
3    This group owes its name to the union of the words Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, which were the cities of origin of its main representatives: Asger Jorn, Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky, among others.
4    This work won a prize in the “Salón Anual de Artistas Colombianos” (Annual Show of Colombian Artists) in 1965, in the midst of a controversy surrounding the work from the public and the critics.
5    Using painting as a support, which involves conventions such as verticality –where the upright figure can be identified or the illusionist projection of space– where a figure superimposes a background generates a kindred relationship with the humanist tradition that takes the concept of the individual as the matrix for the projection of the pictorial image.
6    Owens, Craig. “El impulso alegórico: contribuciones a una teoría de la posmodernidad” (The Allegorical Impulse:  Toward a Theory of Postmodernism), in Wallis, Brian (Ed.). Arte después de la modernidad: nuevos planteamientos en torno a la representación. (Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation.)  Madrid: Ediciones Akal, 2001, Page 204
7    Ibid.
8    Mosquera, Gerardo, El diseño se definió en octubre. (The Design was Defined in October). Havana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1989, Page 34.
9    Elías, Norbert, “Estilo kitsch y época kitsch” (The Kitsch Style and the Age of Kitsch), in Weiler, Vera (comp.). La civilización de los padres y otros ensayos (The Civilization of Our Fathers and other Essays), Bogotá: Editorial Norma, 1998, Pages 72-77.
10    Lanzuela Hernández, Joaquina, 2006. “Una aproximación al estudio iconográfico de San Sebastian” (An Approach to the Iconographic Study of Saint Sebastian), in Studium, Revista de humanidades, Nº 12, 2006, Universidad de Zaragoza, Pages 231-258.
11    Ibid, Pages 238-239.
12    Krauss, Rosalind, La originalidad de la vanguardia y otros mitos modernos (The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths), Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1996, Pages 289-303.
13    Ibid, Page 302.
14     Ibid, Page 176.
15    The arguments surrounding the functioning of the “original edition” as a convention are taken from the essay by Rosalind Krauss, “Sincerely Yours” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modern Myths. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1996, Page 176.
16    Translator note:  On some occasions Barrios’ Grabados populares have been translated as Popular engravings, while other times, to Popular prints.  For this book, we decided on Popular prints.  From this point forward, all references for Grabados populares will be Popular prints.
17    Carroll, Lewis, La caza del Snark (The Hunting of the Snark), Available at <http://www.sant-cugat.net/laborda/502SNARK.htm>.

18    Revista Cromos, No. 2564, November 21, 1966.
19    Marcadé, Bernard, Marcel Duchamp, La vida a crédito (Marcel Duchamp: Life on the Installment Plan), Buenos Aires: Libros del Zorzal, 2008, Page 105.
20    Barrios, Álvaro, 2006. “El testigo ocultista” (The Occultist Witness), in Revista Mundo Nº 23, Bogotá, 2006, Page 26.Pág. 26.
21    Barrios, Álvaro, Op. cit, Page 50.
22    Crimp, Douglas, “Sobre las ruinas del museo” (On the Museum’s Ruins), in Foster, Hal (ed.), La posmodernidad (Postmodernity), Barcelona: Ediciones Kairós, 2002, Pages 75-91.
23    The two phrases in quotation marks come from Rosalind Krauss, one of the theorists who has paid the most attention to the experience of the frame. In this respect, see the aforementioned Essay, Sincerely Yours.
24    Garcia Marquez, Gabriel, 1996. Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Bogotá: Editorial Norma, Pages 171-172.
25    The retouch used the arms and hands of Germaine Everling, the romantic partner of artist Francis Picabia. See Marcadé, Bernard, Op. cit., Page 226.
26    My references to this work closely follow the analysis made by Juan Antonio Ramírez in “Maquinación de los readymades L.H.O.O.Q.” (Machination of the Readymades L.H.O.O.Q.) in Duchamp, el amor y la muerte incluso (Duchamp: Love and Death, Even), Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1994.
27    Cited by Ramírez, Juan Antonio, Op. cit.
28    Marcadé, Bernard, Op. cit., Pages 354-355.
29    It is usually said that the operation that converted the urinal into art was a 90 degree turn with respect to its normal position, given that the part used to attach it to the wall serves as the base of the object. When a man “uses” a urinal, however, he leans his head down, and thus perceives the surface of contact between the object and the wall as its upper part. Therefore, by creating the Fountain, Duchamp is proposing a 180 degree turn relative to the normal use of the object. When the function is hygiene, the masculine organ points down, and when the function is sexual it points up. If the urinal was turned 180 degrees to be the Fountain, it is making us note that its signification now has to do with sexuality. It should not surprise us that the bodily metaphors are activated in this new position that have been possessed by the object since it was designed (on the outside it is curvilinear like a woman’s hips and on the inside it appears to evoke the shape of a uterus). The company that manufactured the urinal, Mott Iron Works, is evoked with the pseudonym with which the work is signed, R. Mutt, because it is the true intellectual author mobilizing the metaphors the spectator projects on the work.